School counselors' duties expand with student needs

Amy Meister is rolling down the hallway with her teaching cart. It is full of post-it notes and markers, and she has all the materials she needs for an engaging lesson. Upon arriving at her destination, a fourth-grade classroom, Meister will use games, videos and discussion to teach students. But Meister is not a teacher. She is a school counselor at Laurel Lane Elementary School.

The role of school counselor has transformed since many parents and teachers were in school themselves.

“When I was in middle school, we did not go to (counselors) for social or emotional reasons,” said Laura Kurthy, a counselor at Hornsby Middle School. “It was just a clerical role for scheduling.”

In Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, counselors are responsible for a lot more than helping students choose their class schedules. School counselors help with college and career preparation, classroom skills teaching and emotional support, along with a variety of other duties. Kurthy said nowadays, counselors are looking at the whole child rather than just the academic piece.

Elizabeth Parker, W-JCC coordinator of school counseling programs, said counselors must have a masters degree in counseling along with 600 or more hours of clinical experience counseling in a school setting.

While counselors may use tools such as toys and games to help students open up, all of the methods used are backed by research. Parker said there is no such thing as “random acts of counseling.”

For example, Meister has a student who has a hard time talking when she’s upset. However, when Meister lets the girl play on a swing set or play with an expanding ball, the girl calms down and opens up. Meister said sometimes she has to ask the girl to slow down because she’s talking so fast. With this student, Meister is using a method called impact therapy, which utilizes multiple senses to help a student get to the root of their issue. So by allowing a student to fidget or expend physical energy, they are able to communicate easier.

Counselors also now play a role in classroom instruction.

Kurthy is staff sponsor for the program “Bee Crew,” formally known as “Blayton Buddies.” This program sends middle schoolers from Hornsby across the street to J. Blaine Blayton Elementary School to help teachers. The program not only helps teachers by giving them an extra set of hands in the classroom, but it gives middle schoolers experience in working with younger children.

While students said they only did things such as help cut paper for teachers during their first week or so in the classroom, once the students had gained the teacher’s trust they were allowed to help students work on subjects such as math and play with them.

Kurthy views herself as a liaison between the Hornsby students and the Blayton teachers and administrators. Throughout the year, she checks in to makes sure the students are the right fit for the teachers with whom they’re placed.

One way she monitors how students are doing is by creating daily questions for students to answer about their time in the elementary school. Students write these answers in a journal, which they turn in to Kurthy to read. Kurhty said she also uses the journals as a tool for students to practice self-reflection.

“I’m helping (the students) navigate this year-long process," Kurthy said. "I do want them to see there's more than just walking in the classroom."

Classroom time

Counselors also teach classroom lessons. Meister said while most counselors have a general outline of what classroom lessons they’d like to teach, they also listen to teacher input and change lesson plans based on what students need. So, if a teacher said their students have a problem with tattling on each other, or someone in the class has been stealing, Meister will plan a lesson on that subject.

After hearing from a fourth-grade teacher that her students were struggling with confidence in weak academic subject areas, Meister taught a lesson on having growth mindset, which focuses on students believing they can improve in subjects where they struggle, rather than just saying they are “bad” at it. Meister taught this lesson to help fourth graders feel more confident in practicing and taking their SOL tests.

“The brain is like a muscle; we can make it grow,” Meister said. “If you knew everything you would not be here (in school) right now.”

The lessons counselors teach revolve around standards set by the American School Counselor Association. These guidelines make sure every lesson is not only related to a child’s emotional growth but also their academic advancement.

A new social struggle Kurthy said has emerged for many students in her middle school is learning “netiquette,” or social rules for social media.

While children used to be separated from their friends for a few hours when they left school, now they are constantly connected to their them through social media. Kurthy said children are never really alone anymore and that brings a new set of social challenges.

She teaches students that there are different boundaries with what you can talk about in online conversations, and how it’s hard to tell the tone of a message online because you can’t interpret cues such as tone of voice. Kurthy also warns students to be careful about what kind of information they post or tell other students.

She said a lot of parents reach out to her asking how to deal with social media.

“It’s a whole new aspect for them,” Kurthy said. “They ask what age is it alright to give a child a cell phone, how to monitor them without invading their privacy,”

She said she counsels parents on this issue as she would any other. While the solutions are different for every family, she said if a child is having troubling balancing their social media use, it does not make someone a bad parent to set restrictions or to take their child’s cellphone away.

Next month, Kurthy plans to hold a parent academy that will teach parents how to monitor their child’s cellphone and internet use, as well as how to help them navigate social media.

Expanding roles

Another growing responsibility for counselors is helping students with their mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youths ages 13-18 suffer from a mental illness, including anxiety or depression, which makes it harder for students to learn the same way as their peers. Kurthy said learning disabilities and Individual Education Programs sometimes go hand-in-hand with mental illnesses.

One of the roles of a counselor to help students is to serve as a liaison between parents and teachers for what a student needs to succeed in school. However, Kurthy said too often one very important person is missing from these meetings: the student.

Kurthy is starting a small group to teach middle school students how to advocate for their own IEP and special education needs. Kurthy was inspired by the Virginia program “I’m Determined,” which was created to help empower students with special education needs. In Kurthy’s group, students will come up with an education plan they will present to their teachers. She said often, teachers are just given a plan written by another adult. Kurthy thinks having students create and present their own plans will help empower them to advocate for their own needs.

In W-JCC schools, counselors introduce career exploration and college readiness to students as early as kindergarten.

The goal with an early introduction isn’t to have students decide in the first grade what they want to do for the rest of their lives, but to show them what possibilities are out there and that there is life after high school.

Meister is taking a group of fifth graders on a field trip to Christopher Newport University. There, students will tour the university, look at the dorms and eat in the school cafeteria, which Meister said is most students favorite part.

Even with new responsibilities, some roles of the school counselor endure.

A W-JCC counselor still helps students choose what courses to take the following semester, but counselors now also have broader insight on what students need and are prepared to help them.

Want to learn more?

Learn more at under departments, curricular and instruction, school counselor programs.

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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